Agreement Reached in Freedom of Information Act Lawsuits
April 25, 2013
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs agreed yesterday to release previously-withheld records documenting its treatment of disability compensation claims filed by veterans who experienced sexual violence in the military, often referred to as military sexual trauma (MST).
The agreement partially settles two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed against the VA by the Service Women's Action Network, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Connecticut. It does not resolve the FOIA claims filed by the plaintiffs against the U.S. Department of Defense in the same cases.
"We're pleased that the VA has decided to comply with our request and provide critical information to the public," said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network and former Marine Corps Captain. "This information will increase our ability to obtain equal treatment for survivors in the VA claims process. Veterans who have been sexually assaulted and sexually harassed in the military deserve access to a fair system of assessment and compensation by the VA for the trauma they have endured – they don't deserve a second betrayal. We look forward to analyzing the information we receive and making it available to inform public policy."
Last year, a federal judge ruled that the government did not adequately respond to the initial lawsuit and that it had improperly denied a public interest fee waiver to the plaintiffs. In yesterday's settlement, the VA agreed to release records regarding claims filed, approved, rejected, or remanded in relation to MST and requests for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety that stemmed from MST. The records will be released without charge to the plaintiffs.
"Records released earlier in this litigation revealed that the VA disproportionately denies MST-related disability claims," said Professor Michael Wishnie, co-director of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, which served as lead counsel in the cases. "We hope the new release will finally allow the public to understand why the VA discriminates against MST survivors – and how best to ensure equal treatment for all injured veterans."
Tens of thousands of service members each year are estimated to have experienced some form of sexual violence. These acts occur at higher rates within military ranks than within civilian society.
"We know that veterans who are disabled due to military sexual assault experience high hurdles when applying for benefits," said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project and co-counsel in the cases. "The government has done the right thing in agreeing to disclose detailed information that will reveal the extent of this devastating issue and help guide reforms of the VA's practices."
The groups sought the release of the records to better understand the prevalence of sexual violence within the military, and the government's policies and response to such violence.
"This settlement will benefit those who have suffered after putting their lives on the line for our country," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. "These records will help us understand more clearly the extent of the abuse and how many service members are receiving the treatment and assistance they need in its wake."